Fast Abs

In the past you'd have been hard-pressed to find elite runners paying attention to their abs. Today, it's practically mandatory.

"It's so important. The stronger the core, the more likely you are to hold your form and less likely to get injured," explains marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe. You simply can't run your best without a strong core: the muscles in your abdominals, lower back and glutes. They provide the stability, power and endurance that runners need for powering up hills, sprinting to the finish and maintaining form mile after mile.

"When your core is strong, everything else will follow," says running coach Greg McMillan (mcmillanrunning.com), who has worked with scores of elite and recreational runners. "It's the foundation for all of your movement, no matter what level of running you're doing."

Evidence that core strength training improves your running has been revealed in a study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, where 28 recreational and competitive runners were put to the test.

After initial evaluation of ground reaction forces, lower-extremity stability scores and 5,000m running performance, half participated in a six-week core strength training programme while the other half did not. All runners went through a repeat of the evaluations after the six weeks. The core strength training group increased their running times more over the course of the study than the other group, providing evidence that core strength training can make you a faster runner.

The key to core training is to train your core like a specialist. Experts have mapped out precisely how the movements of running draw on the strength and stability of the glutes, obliques and abdominal muscles that lie deep beneath the six-pack. They've learned how essential it is for runners to engage these muscles to finish fast, reduce pain and hang tough on long runs. Best of all, they've tailored workouts to help them do that.

All runners – from those rehabilitating injuries to elites gunning for PBs – can benefit from this detailed approach. "Ironically, so many runners don't discover the importance of core stability until they are laid up. But when all the muscles involved in running are supported, you don't get as many injuries and can enjoy running more," says running coach Nick Anderson (fullpotential.co.uk).

Quality core work isn't easy. But it doesn't require much of your time, says Anderson. "You don't need to put in more than 15 minutes a few times a week." It's an investment that will pay dividends on the road.


HARD CORE, HEALTHY RUNNER

Your core is like a power plant. If it’s not working efficiently, you’ll waste energy, says Tim Hilden, a physical therapist, athletic trainer, and exercise physiologist, specialising in running mechanics. "You'll see too much unwanted movement, which decreases performance or sets you up for injury." Here are three areas that can become injured as a result of a weak core:

Lower back
As your legs pound the pavement, your vertebrae absorb much of the force. That shock worsens if your core is weak, which will produce lower-back pain. Build those muscles with moves like the superman (see below).

Hamstrings
When your core isn't stable, your hamstrings often have to work extra hard, says running coach and physiotherapist Paula Coates. The added work can leave them shorter, tighter, and more vulnerable to injury. To strengthen them, as well as your glutes, try exercises like bridges, lunges and squats.

Knees
Without a stable core, you can't control the movement of your torso as well, and you risk putting excess force on your joints each time your foot lands. This can lead to pain under the knee (known as 'runner's knee'), patellar tendinitis (a sharp pain in the bottom of the knee), and iliotibial-band tendinitis. The plank and side plank (exercises below) strengthen the transversus abdominis, which help steady the core.


ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

The mistake: You’re doing the wrong exercises
"The biggest mistake that runners tend to make is to take strength-training moves, such as crunches, straight from the fitness industry," says running coach Greg McMillan. For most runners, standard crunches aren’t helpful because they don’t work the deep core muscles that provide the stability to run mile after mile.
The fix Do workouts that hit the muscles and movements that runners need. Try exercises like the side plank or plank lift (see below) that strengthen the obliques, located on the sides of the trunk, and the transverse abs, the deep core muscles that wrap around the trunk like a corset. These muscles stabilise the core, help counter rotation, and minimise wasteful movement so that you run more efficiently.

The mistake: You’re a creature of habit
Even if you’ve moved beyond crunches, you may find you have slipped into a routine. "You need to constantly challenge your muscles to get results," says running coach Sam Murphy, co-author of Running Well (Human Kinetics Publishers; £14.99).
The fix Mix it up. Fine-tune your workout to make it more difficult. Try balancing on one leg or changing your arm position. At the gym, use devices like stability balls or balance discs – unstable platforms that force your core muscles to work harder to keep you steady. And as a rule, McMillan says, change your routine around every six weeks or so.

The mistake: You whip through your workouts
If you’re flying through the moves in your workout, you’re using momentum, not muscles.
The fix Slow it down. Exercises like the plank, which require holding one position for 10 to 60 seconds, force you to work your muscles continuously. Even in exercises that involve repetitions, make steady – not rapid-fire – movements. "It takes intention," says Paula Coates, running coach, physiotherapist and
author of Running Repairs: A Runner’s Guide to Keeping Injury Free (A&C Black Publishers Ltd; £12.99). "Don’t rush through them, and make sure you’re doing them properly."

The mistake: You ignore what you don’t see
Runners often have weak backs because they just forget about them, says running coach Nick Anderson. "But when you’re running, especially if you’re running for a long time, those muscles in the lower back are crucial for providing stability and support."
The fix Include at least one exercise that hits the lower back and glutes in each workout. Moves like the bridge and superman (above), build muscles that support and protect the spine.


BEYOND CRUNCHES

Fortunately, quality core strength work doesn't require a great deal of time or equipment – just 15 minutes three times a week, a few feet of floor space and some key moves done correctly and consistently.

This workout is designed by Greg McMillan, a running coach and exercise scientist, who has worked with many recreational runners and world-class athletes. The workout is devised to strengthen the specific muscles runners need for bounding up hills, sprinting to the finish, enduring long distances and preventing common running injuries.

Try doing two sets of these moves right before or after your run, three times a week.

Superman

What It Hits Transversus abdominis (deep abs) and erector spinae (lower back).

Start face down on the floor, with your arms and legs extended out front. Raise your head, your left arm, and right leg about five inches off the floor. Hold for three counts, then lower. Repeat with your right arm and left leg. Do up to 10 reps on each side.

Get It Right Don't raise your shoulders too much.

Make It Harder Lift both arms and legs at the same time.

Bridge

What It Hits Glutes and hamstrings.

Lie face up on the floor, with your knees bent 90 degrees, your feet on the floor. Lift your hips and back off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Lower to the floor and repeat 10 to 12 times.

Get It Right Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, and don't let your spine sag.

Make It Harder Straighten one leg once your hips are lifted.

Metronome

What It Hits Obliques.

Lie face up with your knees bent and raised over your hips, with your shins parallel to the ground, your feet lifted, and your arms out. Rotate your legs to the left, bringing your knees as close to the floor as possible without touching. Return to the centre, then rotate your knees to the right. Do 10 to 12 reps on each side.

Get It Right Make sure not to swing your hips or use momentum; start the movement from your core and continue to move slowly from side to side.

Make It Harder Keep your legs straight.

Plank Lift

What It Hits Transversus abdominis and lower back.

Begin face down on the floor, propped up on your forearms, with knees and feet together. With your elbows under your shoulders, lift your torso, legs and hips in a straight line. Hold this plank position for 10 seconds. Raise your right leg a few inches, keeping the rest of the body still. Lower and repeat with your left leg.

Get It Right Pull in your belly and don't let your hips sag.

Make It Harder Extend the time of the exercise. Each time you lift your leg, hold it for 15 to 20 seconds.

Side Plank

What It Hits Obliques, transversus abdominis, lower back, hips and glutes.

Lie on your right side, supporting your upper body on your right forearm, with your left arm at your left side. Lift your hips and, keeping your body weight supported on the forearm and the side of the right foot, extend your left arm above your shoulder. Hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.

Get It Right Keep your hips up; don't let them sag.

Make It Harder Support your upper body with your right hand, instead of your forearm.